Puerto Rican New York actress Rosie Perez’s recent documentary “¡Yo soy Boricua, pa’que tu lo sepas!” (I’m Puerto Rican, just so you know!) emphasizes, perhaps without really intending to, the contradictions facing a national minority of a colonial country within the United States.
Beginning with footage of the National Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York (the oldest activity of national affirmation of Puerto Ricans in the United States), the film tries to answer the question: Who are the Puerto Ricans and what are we doing here?
The documentary tries to do this through a historical summary narrated by actor Jimmy Smits, also Puerto Rican, and through reminiscences and interviews with Puerto Rican intellectuals and artists and Perez’s relatives. Unfortunately, the narrative includes some distortions or, worse yet, outright errors based on myths and stories that bolster a particular political position rather than reflect historical reality.
Nevertheless, the film tells a history, beginning with the Tainos (the original native people of Puerto Rico) and their conquest by the Spanish conquistadors.
It is here that we encounter one of the first errors — namely, when the film states that the Tainos were docile or passive, and that is why they were conquered. In fact, there were many Taino rebellions against the Spanish who were enslaving them.
A theme of national sovereignty, or affirmation, runs through the documentary like a thread. This can be seen when the film shows documentary footage of the struggles of the militant Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, headed by Pedro Albizu Campos, and the repression that the U.S. authorities directed against them and other independence supporters.
Perhaps we should not be much bothered by the historical errors that also pop up in the archival footage of U.S. newscasts. For example, the documentary shows newsreels of the 1954 nationalist rebellion at the U.S. Capitol, where pistol shots were fired by Lolita Lebrón, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Andres Figueroa Cordero and Irving Flores Rodríguez. In these newscasts, the narrator erroneously claims communists provided the arms that the nationalists used in their failed attempt at insurrection.
As anyone who has more than a superficial knowledge of Puerto Rican politics and history knows, while both the nationalists and communists were fighting for independence, their ultimate goals, and their strategy and tactics, were quite different.
The nationalists saw independence as the final goal; communists saw it as an essential step toward their goal, socialism.
The nationalists thought of themselves as the “organized nation,” and they thought that they could get a sovereign Puerto Rico through an insurrection carried out by them.
The communists believed in organizing the people to struggle not only for an independent nation, but for a society that served the interests of the great majority of Puerto Rico’s workers and farmers. They knew that Puerto Rico was divided into social classes, even as they also understood that the Puerto Rican people were confronting an empire that oppressed all Puerto Ricans.
For the nationalists, Puerto Rico was a family where the Puerto Rican “who had a quarter more would help the other.”
Regardless of these differences, in the 1954 incident, communists came out in defense of the nationalists who were arrested and imprisoned, just as any Marxist today would do for people who are struggling against the occupation of their country, even if their methods are mistaken. After 25 years of imprisonment, the four were ultimately freed by a presidential pardon.
The national affirmation or independence thread in the film can also be seen in its treatment of the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican youth group in the U.S. But again we come up against a contradiction: while the Young Lords allude to the necessity of a free Puerto Rico, they complain they are “not allowed to vote for the president,” but yet are expected “to die for the president of the United States.”
The contradiction is one between national rights and civil rights. The first is the broad right of Puerto Ricans to solve their own problems and to decide what future they want by themselves. The second goes into what it means to become a part of a country that holds them as second-class citizens, a country that today is building a wall to keep out Latin Americans.